Reclaiming the May Day tradition: 'Through unity we find our strength'

CHICAGO — On March 10, 2006 this city rocked the nation as nearly 500,000 people stopped traffic and marched to Federal Plaza for immigrant rights and the rights of undocumented workers. It was the largest turnout for immigrant rights in recent U.S. history. The massive outpouring protested the anti-immigrant and reactionary anti-worker bill HR 4437, introduced into Congress by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) that year.

A couple of months later, on May 1, nearly two million people throughout the U.S. marched for the rights of workers and immigrants. A sleeping giant had awakened. The spirit and history of May Day was reclaimed and on May Day 2007 almost 300,000 people again took over the streets of Chicago.

This year, in the city’s third annual May Day demonstration in recent years, over 20,000 people including 100 Latino, labor, community, student and religious groups marched through the streets for immigrant rights. African American, Arab, Asian and LGBT organizations throughout the area also joined the massive demonstration. Mayor Richard Daley and a number of elected officials made appearances as well.

2704.jpgA moratorium on immigration raids, the reunification of immigrant families and comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to legalization for the estimated 12 million immigrants living in the U.S. were major themes. The rights of immigrants and all workers in the workplace, the right to unionize and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, fair wages, an end to the occupation of Iraq, equal access to education and universal health care were also stressed.

Esther, 46, a legal resident originally from Guerrero, Mexico, came with 20 of her mostly immigrant co-workers from La Condesa restaurant. “We wrote a letter to our boss saying we were not working on May 1 in order to be here,” she said in Spanish. “Through unity we find our strength and when we unite we could win more advances,” she added. Esther and her co-workers hope to form a union at their work site. “We want a union at work to help us and to protect our rights,” she said.

Patricia Hernandez, an electronics factory worker who has been living in the U.S. for 20 years, came from Waukegan, Ill. to march. “I came to support my friends and families who don’t have papers and to say enough to the war in Iraq,” she said. “It’s time to bring our troops home,” she added.

Marlene Cervantes, 24, a resource coordinator at Kelly High School, came with 80 students. “The students wanted to come, they’re interested in standing up for immigration reform and passing the Dream Act,” said Cervantes. Many of these kids are the leaders and at the forefront of their families, she said, adding, “It’s important that adults listen to youth and that their voices are heard.”

Another important issue is the fight for health care, said John Viramontes, 56, an accountant by profession and a leader of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation. “It just doesn’t make sense for our economic system to profit off people who are sick and need medical attention,” he said. “It’s disgusting and outrageous and never should have started that way,” he added. “I have been to all the marches since 2006 and I feel it’s important to stand up for people who don’t have a voice and call attention to the fact that families are being separated and innocent people are getting caught up.”

2705.jpgGabriela Lemus is the national executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). She spoke at the rally in Federal Plaza where the march ended. “We are all here marching together on behalf of all workers,” she told the World. “Today’s economy is on the downturn and workers are being impacted the world over,” she added.

“The value of the human worker is being lost while the value of corporate profits continue to increase, and that’s a problem. It’s important that today’s actions be transformed into political action and to get out the vote especially for the voiceless, the undocumented worker,” Lemus said. “We have to make sure we vote.”

Todd Anderson, AFL-CIO Midwest Regional Director, joined the rally in downtown Chicago. “We are here to join with our coalition partners to unite workers and turn around America,” he said. “Health care is a right, not a privilege and we are here to stand together for a better health care system.”

Emphasizing that the economy needs to reward all Americans, not just the elite, Anderson said the AFL-CIO is determined to “restore the right for workers to freely organize unions.” He added, “The whole world is watching Chicago this May Day and President Bush better get out of the way come this November, because it’s time for a change.”

In the aftermath of another historic May Day, a new fever is heating up throughout the country. Since the beginning of the year, millions of voters from New York to Los Angeles, from Seattle to Dallas and in every town and city across the U.S. are fired up for change. The American people see real hope that a chance to decide a new political direction for this country is at hand.

A recurring slogan this May Day was, “The vote is power,” and many people said they hope their vote will show the power for change to defeat the Republicans in the White House and in Congress next November. As presidential hopeful Barack Obama so eloquently said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”